MOOC providers are not our friends.

29 01 2013

The first version of my post about the Bill of Rights and Principles for Learners in a Digital Age had a long paragraph about Sebastian Thrun in it. It argued that despite his fervent denials, Thrun was coming to the table which drafted that document with mixed motives: pedagogical and financial.

I cut that paragraph when I realized how unbelievably obvious that point was. The people who were around that table aren’t stupid. They knew who they were dealing with and they were right to talk to him. After all, Thrun certainly learned a lot more about pedagogy talking to Cathy Davidson than he did by talking to Tom Friedman at Davos, so by all means let’s keep the lines of communication open.

However, we also have to remember that when Thrun tries to “reorient the conversation about MOOCs to focus on pedagogy rather than economics,” he is trying to distract us from the fact that his business plan depends on denigrating the work of faculty everywhere. As my new hero, Bob Samuels, explained it in the very definition of a must-read post yesterday:

Here is Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, from the UCLA forum (these quotes come from the rush transcript on Remaking the University): “Students rarely learn listening . . . or they never learn by listening. The challenge for us is to take this new medium and really bring it to a mode where students do something and learn by doing. And if you look at the broad spectrum of online technology with what happens. It doesn’t really take long time to point to video games. And most of us look down on video games. We’ve also played them. I know there are people in this room who play angry birds. Some people do. Some people don’t admit it. Angry birds is an wonderful learning environment because you get drawn in, you solve the physics problems but the big problem is that it stops at angry birds . . . if the angry birds was good enough to get into the masters students in physics. It would be an amazing experience and you could do this at scale.” The point I want to stress here is the claim that students never learn from listening. Following this logic, most of current education is simply useless, and we should just have students take out their smart phones and play Angry Birds all day.

Samuels goes on to explain how the downgrading of traditional learning environments is directly connected to the downsizing of the faculty.

Thrun, of course, is not alone in this strategy. Here’s Samuels again:

In her presentation for Coursera, Daphne Koller insisted that since students now have a very short attention span, the classic lecture has to be broken up into a series of short videos followed by an interactive question and answer system. She argued that this method paradoxically makes mass education personalized as it pushes students to constantly learn and be tested on material before they advance.

Like the other online course providers, in order to differentiate her “product” from the “traditional” model of education, Koller had to constantly put down the current way we educate students. Thus, she derided the “sage on the stage” and the inability of most students to ask questions in their large lecture classes. She also bemoaned the fact that no one wants to read students’ tests with identical questions and answers, and so the whole grading process can be given to computers and fellow students. Once again, this argument not only degrades the value and expertise of faculty, but it also treats students as if they need to be reimagined as programmable machines and free laborers. Yes, let’s have the students’ grade each other’s paper, and while they pay for their education, let us train them to work for free.

Peer grading exists not because it’s the best way to learn anything, but because it’s the only way that MOOC providers can ever hope to make money teaching humanities courses. That’s what happens when people bring mixed motives to the table. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to them. However, accepting the assumption that technology is the only way to solve every current problem in higher education isn’t going to help anyone either – students included.

We all have colleagues who are not technologically inclined. I had one who just retired whose idea of cutting edge pedagogy was wheeling his overhead projector around our building so that he could show his students transparent plastic sheets emblazoned with all the maps he had collected over the years. He was also the most popular professor in our entire department. He could not be replaced by a computer, but if he were still around to replace the MOOC providers would want to do it anyway.

Faculty MOOC enthusiasts all seem to assume that they‘ll be able to ride this wave. I’m not so sure, but in any event I can guarantee professors everywhere that Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller couldn’t care less which of us survives disruption and which of us doesn’t.



2 responses

31 01 2013
One size does not fit all. « More or Less Bunk

[…] will. And I’ll bet you anything that by the time they’re ready to act, Udacity will be more than happy to assist […]

31 01 2013
Scott Johnson

Agree with the assessment of intentions behind the Bill of Rights site so why not start a new one? There’s also the institutional version that actually might be a better place to make progress.

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